One of my favorite anecdotes about the joys-- and availability-- of watching a range of films from a range of eras involves certain older titles that, not all that long ago, only could be seen at museums or in specialized movie houses. For after all, once upon a time, in order to see these films, one would have no option but to travel into New York City, if they were being shown, for example, at the Museum of Modern Art. Or perhaps they might be screening in a small theater on Paris’ Left Bank-- and, you would have had to adjust your schedule to the dates and times in which the individual films were playing.
But no more... And this was never more apparent when, a few years ago, I was screening a number of 1930’s features directed by the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu for inclusion in the Leonard Maltin Classic Guide. These films were available on DVD, and I could savor them from the comfort of an easy chair. I could do so on Wednesday or Friday or Monday, at three in the afternoon or three in the morning. If I missed a bit of dialogue or wished to re-see a sequence, all I had to do was replay it. What a special treat for a film lover!
Well, this year, as spring faded into summer, I decided to relish a pair of features from the late 1940’s and early 50’s by Yasujiro Ozu. Their titles are appropriate, given the change of seasons. They are LATE SPRING, from 1949, and EARLY SUMMER, from 1951. LATE SPRING centers on the relationship between a widowed father and his twenty-something daughter. EARLY SUMMER involves the goings-on among a friendly and very recognizable family, from grandparents through grandchildren. Its storyline involve a likable unmarried daughter and sister, who is 28 years old. Both films feature Setsuko Hara, a major star in Japan during the 1930’s and ‘40’s and a delight for contemporary film lovers to discover. For after all, not all iconic movie stars are American. One of the highlights for me was getting to meet, ever-so-briefly, the late great Jeanne Moreau. (Hara, by the way, left films in 1963 upon the death of Ozu, who was her mentor. She refused to return to the cinema and died in 2015, at the age of 95.)
But back to LATE SPRING and EARLY SUMMER. There are no villains in either film, and no major crises. Back then, in relation to weddings and babies, a woman in her twenties from a range of cultures would be pressured to marry. Even the attractive and likable characters played by Hara are constantly being asked, “Why don’t you get married?” and told, “It’s about time you got married.”
At its core, LATE SPRING and EARLY SUMMER examine the meaning of true happiness. Is it an automatic outgrowth of marriage? Are all marriages successful ones? Can a single person ever be happy? Both films also offer portraits of post-World War II Japan, a society in the process of being westernized. In certain scenes, characters wear Westernized clothing, the styles that were popular seven decades ago. In others, they are garbed in kimonos. In EARLY SUMMER, a little boy is saving his yen for an extra-special present. That would be some “model train tracks,” and this is a sweet reminder of what young boys from all over coveted prior to video games.
Indeed, LATE SPRING and EARLY SUMMER are the stories of families and how their dynamics change as time passes, children grow up, and parents grow old. Both are sweet, gentle, and lyrical, on so many levels. The manner in which Ozu employs music, particularly as he opens and closes a sequence and has his camera quietly dwelling on an image, is simple but never simplistic. It is pure poetry and, for good reason, Yasujiro Ozu has become an all-time-favorite filmmaker.
Rob Edelman teaches film history courses at the University at Albany. He has contributed to many arts and baseball-related publications; his latest book, which he co-edited, is From Spring Training To Screen Test: Baseball Players Turned Actors. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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